In Part 1 of this story I focused on U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski and the preparations she is making for a re-election run. In Part 2, I want to look at the political landscape in Alaska she’ll be running in.
Let’s start with where she finds herself in the polls as her re-election campaign begins.
Murkowski’s Broad But Shallow Appeal
According to polling conducted by Harstad Strategic Research, Inc and released exclusively to TMS, Sen. Murkowski continues to hold broad but shallow appeal across the political spectrum. 53% of those polled said they would vote to re-elect her and 33% said they would vote for someone else. Murkowski even draws some support from democrats with 44% percent of them saying they would vote for her. She is most popular among Independents, 55% of whom said
they would send Murkowski back to DC.
The Poll was conducted from July 19-26 and sampled 602 voters from the 2014 election.
These results show that while Murkowski isn’t particularly unpopular among any group, she also doesn’t have a natural and passionate base of support anywhere on the political spectrum. That makes for tricky re-election dynamics for a centrist Senator who could very well face a challenge from her right flank in the primary election and then the center or left in the general election.
These numbers are also far lower than those Sen. Murkowski scored in the run up to her last re-election bid. Hayes Research polls from this point in the election cycle six years ago showed Sen. Murkowski’s approval numbers consistently in the 70s.
So Senator Murkowski does have support, but that support is broad, shallow, and not nearly as good as it was last time around.
Sen. Murkowski’s numbers in a potential primary match-up also show reason for concern. A Harstad poll conducted from August 6-11 asking how Murkowski would do head-to-head against her 2010 foe Joe Miller shows Sen. Murkowski beats Miller handily among all voters 50%-20%. Among those who said they plan to vote in the Republican primary, however, Murkowski’s victory margin shrinks to 48%-33%, and among those voters who call themselves “conservative” the margin is a statistical tie with Murkowski scoring 39% and Miller getting 38%.
At first glance these numbers might seem to indicate a Murkowski win, but they also show striking vulnerability to a conservative challenger.
That less than half of likely republican primary voters are willing to commit to her against a candidate who so consistently receives high personal negatives in polling has to be troubling to her camp.
The numbers would suggest a fresh conservative candidate who shares Miller’s populist-libertarian values, but lacks his personal baggage, could seriously challenge, and maybe even beat, Murkowski in a primary.
Social Conservatives Not On Board
Part of the problem facing Murkowski in a re-election run could stem from growing dissatisfaction in socially conservative/religious-right circles. They certainly don’t love her socially moderate issue profile. She supports gay marriage and is pro-choice. Their vitriol towards her, however, appears to stem more from what they perceive as a lack of candor and trustworthiness on her part.
I have been told by sources inside the social conservative community they actually long for the days of working with Democrat Mark Begich over Republican Lisa Murkowski. Begich, they say, rarely agreed with them on many issues, but they always felt like they could talk to him, get a fair airing of their issue, and he would be honest with them about where he stood. Not with so Murkowski, they claim.
These sources also indicated the rancor between this segment of the conservative base and Murkowski has gotten to the point where if Begich ran against Murkowski these groups would encourage their flocks to skip that line on the ballot altogether, or vote for a third party candidate.
Such open hostility from a large chunk of the traditional republican base would not only hurt Sen. Murkowski at the polls, it could eviscerate the ability of her campaign to generate grassroots activist support for “ground game” volunteer activities like phone banking and door-to-door work.
If these groups aren’t willing to aid Sen. Murkowski against a socially progressive candidate like Mark Begich in the general election, it is hard to envision a scenario where they don’t actively campaign against her if and when a socially conservative opponent appears in the primary election.
The Candidates To Be Candidates
At this point no one credible has stepped forward to face Sen. Murkowski from either the Democrat or Republican side.
Republican State Senator Mike Dunleavy made public statements in the spring that he was open to running, but that talk came and went with little follow up on his part. Dunleavy is the kind of smart, respected, and solidly conservative candidate that would seem to be threat to Sen. Murkowski, but people inside the legislature say Dunleavy has cooled on the idea and no longer appears interested.
Former Governor Sean Parnell, former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, and former Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell are all possibilities. There are a host of potential candidates in the state legislature including Anna MacKinnon, Cathy Giessel, Peter Micciche, Pete Kelly, Charlie Huggins, Mike Chenault, and Lance Pruitt. All of these folks sport conservative profiles, but none have made any moves or made any statements indicating they plan to run.
Then there is Joe Miller himself. He’s made no moves to indicate he wants to run. Who could blame him after two bruising Senate races that came up short? Miller’s supporters are clamoring for someone to run against Murkowski though, and if no one else can be found it could be left for Miller to do – whether he truly wants to or not.
The final, and possibly most likely, possibility for a primary challenger to Sen. Murkowski is someone we haven’t heard of, literally. It is hard to imagine today just how unknown Joe Miller was when he jumped into the race against Murkowski six years ago. His only experience in elected politics was a failed run for state house. For a U.S. Senate race, he was a political newcomer of the highest order. It is as likely a scenario as any other that a coalition of religious and libertarian-minded conservatives band together, recruit an untarnished candidate, secure them the immediate endorsement of Miller and Sarah Palin, and run them hard at Murkowski.
Bringing It All Together
The state of the race today has the feel of a battlefield in the morning, before any shots have been fired. It’s a tense calm that could break out into open republican warfare at any moment. Lisa Murkowski is building an organization to fight that war while conservative activists search for their champion. As all of this happens, the specter of a late general election appearance from Mark Begich lurks in the back of republican minds.